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Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

When you finish writing your book, you inevitably face the question: self-publishing vs. traditional publishing? Should you go chasing agents, or upload your book to Amazon, and get on with it? This is a difficult question, and we hope that we’ll be able to answer it for you. But before going into the details of the most debated area of publishing, let me reassure you: it doesn’t have to be either this or that.

Whatever decision you make, it won’t last a lifetime. Many of today’s successful authors went both ways. The so-called “hybrid authors” have published books both traditionally and as self-publishers. Sometimes the very same books!

If you are here because you would like us to condemn one of these two ways, you are in the wrong place. We honestly believe that indie authors, indie publishers, and the big five can peacefully share the market. The right solution for you depends on your book, your circumstances, and your preferences.

In this article, we are exploring the reasons why somebody might decide to go for self-publishing or not, debunk some myths surrounding self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, and list the pros and cons of both ways.

(This is an older article that had been refreshed with new content.)

What is self-publishing?

Although the idea of self-publishing is as old as publishing itself, there are still many controversies and misunderstandings surrounding it. The main difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing is in who manages the book.

Traditional publishing

If you have a publisher, the publisher organizes editing, proofreading, design, marketing, and distribution. Either a publisher approaches you and asks you to write a book for them, or you can approach the publishers and offer them your manuscript. Depending on the model & your particular situation, they might give you an advance while you’re working on the book. If they commissioned the book, you might only get a one-off payment, or they pay you a (small) percentage of sales once the book is out. In traditional publishing, the author does not pay.

Pros & cons

Non-fiction author Amy Shojai points out that the most frustrating part of traditional publishing is the timeline. It takes years to get a book done, and if another publisher is faster, your deal might be cancelled altogether. She also resents the lack of control authors have: “Unless your agent is very good, authors have little input into release date or even cover copy.”

Indie author Donna L Martin thinks that for beginner authors, it is recommended to find a traditional publisher: “I think the best advantage about being traditionally published is the exposure and support they receive from their publishing company.” Regarding cons, she highlights the slow publishing process (3-5 years), and possible creative differences between the author and the publisher.

When it comes to advantages, Patrick G Cox mentions that it is easier to get into brick-and-mortar bookstores if you are traditionally published, as costs of POD can be rather high. Retailers might not even stock your book, and even if they do: who would spend $15 on a book by an unknown author? The same issue does not affect ebooks.

Vanity publishing

If you are approached by a publisher and asked for a sum, think twice. Traditional publishers won’t ask you to pay for publishing your book. “Vanity presses” (often on the market as “self-publishing companies”) come in all shapes and forms. Many of them are trustworthy companies authors can be recommended to use; others not so.

Paying somebody to “publish your book” sounds great for some people and could be a viable option for many authors, but please read the contract thoroughly. If somebody offers you a package containing editing & design, that could well be worth your money. Under no circumstances sign away your copyrights to anyone who asks you to pay.

If a “self-publishing company” has approached you, or you’re thinking of purchasing a publishing package, we recommend that you check the ALLi watchdog to avoid being ripped off. We’d also recommend doing some math: how much would you pay if you’d individually outsource these tasks to third parties?

Self-publishing

As a self-publisher, you organize editing, proofreading, and design. You are responsible for your marketing and distribution. Self-publishing can be costly—or completely free. In self-publishing, you are the boss: you decide which services are worth spending money on, and which steps can you do yourself. Yes, self-publishing is an investment, but you decide how much money or time to invest. Self-published authors get 60-85% of royalties per book.

Regarding cons, many self-published authors point out the steep learning curve. Inexperienced authors often start by throwing money out of the window. It is difficult to learn where to start, but once they do learn it, many self-published authors go on to form their own publishing companies!

Is self-publishing for me?

There are several things you have to consider before deciding.

Do you already have funds for editing, design, marketing and possibly printing, and if not, can you get some?

We cannot stress this enough. Self-publishing, if done well, costs money or time. If you don’t yet have the funds for editing, you can launch a crowdfunding campaign or find a sponsor; it is usually easier if you target a niche audience or raise money for a charity.

If you don’t have any cash to invest, you’ll need time to master the skills needed to become a professional in many fields. This takes time and commitment, but will eventually worth it on the long term.

Do you already have books published you could show the agents?

While it is true that some extremely lucky people manage to schedule a contract at one of the big five publishers without having ever published before, but for most people, it is only a dream.

If you are an author with a name already known to readers of your genre and can show some sales numbers, it is easier to find an agent or a publisher. If this is your first book, you are less likely to find one. Many authors self-publish first, then get a traditional publishing deal; or the other way round.

Would you like to see your books piling up in bookstores all around the country?

The distribution of self-published books (either print or digital) happens mainly online. While it is possible to get into local and regional libraries and independent bookshops, self-published books are unlikely to be seen in bookstores countrywide. While this might change in the future, if you’re distributing books with particularly high printing costs (e.g. photographic books), self-publishing those will likely not be worth it.

Would you like to become famous?

(Who wouldn’t, of course.) You can achieve fame and success as a self-publisher in your niche market, but don’t expect the traditional media (printed newspapers, magazines, television) talking about you straight away. While more and more self-published authors run successful press releases and get their stories picked up by Netflix or television, the Nobel Prize is still given to a traditionally published author. (And Bob Dylan, so who knows what those people think anyway?)

Do you like to be in charge?

People working at traditional publishing houses are experts in their respective fields and are likely to make decisions regarding the title or cover. Most publishers have a “creative idea” they would like to follow, which could result in them asking you to rewrite certain parts or change the title. If you want to have the final say at every step of the publishing process, go indie.

Are you good at marketing?

Your book may be a masterpiece with a beautiful cover and catchy title, but you won’t see any sales if you don’t market it. Traditional publishers (usually) have a decent budget for advertising and marketing, and they can also afford to pay reviewers and publicists. They also have the advantage to be able to get to bookstores: even a poorly marketed book can sell if people see it on the shelf.

If you are an indie with an already existing circle of readers, or a respected person in your field (a famous blogger, vlogger or “fanfictioner”), you start from a less difficult position than somebody who just wrote a novel and would like to see it published.

Last, but not least: do you have what it takes to get a project done?

Publishing a book takes a lot of time and effort – that’s why publishers have a whole team to work on it full-time. You have to decide how precious your free time is, and how determined you are.

Some people thrive under pressure and like to reach out to other authors, build connections, organize events and call tax authorities every now and again. Others just like to be left in peace and write books. It can be disheartening to spend day after day with a project that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. If you decide to become a self-published author, you might be spending a lot of time, effort, and money on something that could be your best or worst investment. If this sounds like something that would discourage you from ever writing again, try to find a traditional publisher.

So far we wrote about the main differences between self- and traditional publishing and raised a set of questions you have to ask yourself before deciding which way to go. In the following, we are going to look at self-publishing and traditional publishing separately, and compare them in this neat table.

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

Self-publishing Traditional publishing
funds You have to pay for editing, design, and marketing. You can save on printing if you choose a POD service. The publisher pays for everything, including printing and distribution.
royalties You get around 60-70% of each book sold, depending on the online store you are selling in. Also, don’t forget to pay your taxes. You get around 10% of royalties after each book, depending on the publisher and the country.
rights You keep all the rights. You are also responsible for purchasing the rights of all artwork you are using. The publisher has the rights to your book; the exact conditions depend on the publisher. You can read more about the contract traps here.
decisions You make all the decisions regarding your book. You might make good decisions or bad decisions; they are your decisions nevertheless. An expert team makes all the decisions regarding your book. They will probably only ask your opinion.
timing It only depends on your time and abilities: your book can be on the shelves within months. Publishing a book can take up to two years.
getting published Everyone can get published. Your success depends on how big your actual market is and how well can you reach them. Only a selected few can get published: as publishers have limited funds, they have to choose from the incoming manuscripts. It is extremely difficult to find a publisher that is willing to publish your book.
bookstores While you are not restricted to ebooks, it is difficult to appear in major bookstores. Publishers can easily distribute their books all over the country.
efforts Your job doesn’t finish with typing the last period. The author has to organize everything during the publishing process. You just have to write a book, and the publisher is taking care of it. You can go back and start writing the next one.
know-how Finding skilled workers for every step through the process is difficult. You can be certain that you book is in the best hands.
fame As an indie, you will have a hard time getting your voice heard outside your main audience. Your name will be on posters, in newspapers, and bookstores – but remember, there isn’t a J.K. Rowling every year.
prizes There are only a few awards open to self-publishers. If you are good and lucky enough to win one of the big awards, you will be well known and well read.

You have a clearer picture of the pros and cons of both sides by now. Ready to make your own decision on which one to choose?

Either way, we wish you happy publishing!

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